Celebrating a great son of Africa

S IS FOR SAMORA: A LEXICAL BIOGRAPHY OF SAMORA MACHEL AND THE MOZAMBICAN DREAM by Sarah LeFanu (UKZN Press)

Samora Machel is not judged as harshly as other liberation heroes who did — or did not — go on to lead the countries for whose freedom they fought.

Machel was Mozambique's president for 11 years, but despite that lengthy tenure he has an uncontested seat of honour at the high table at which Africa's most mourned sons sit. I am thinking of the Congo's Patrice Lumumba; Agostinho Neto, poet and founding president of Angola's MPLA; theorist and revolutionary Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau; Chris Hani of South Africa; and Zanu's military supremo, Josiah Magama Tongogara (Zimbabwe's own Hani, if you like). Tongogara, a brave and wise general, could trace his origins to the Mfengu people of the eastern Cape.

Unlike most of these revolutionaries who never got to govern and therefore tarnish their legacy and early promise, Machel was Mozambique's president from 1975 until his death in a mysterious aeroplane crash in South Africa in 1986. That's a long enough time in office to disillusion many, yet "people still cry when they think about Samora".

Machel is resurrected in S Is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, a beautifully written 300-page biography by a Briton, Sarah LeFanu.

LeFanu went to Mozambique in 1978 and stayed for two years as a cooperante. Cooperantes were mostly Europeans, Cubans and Asians who went to the newly independent country to fill "the posts left vacant by the fleeing Portuguese … while Mozambicans were trained to fill the posts themselves". But Machel, loath to settle for the prosaic when the poetics of revolution could be used, preferred to call the idealists "militants who share a common cause and have put personal considerations in second place in order to help with National Reconstruction".

The book, written using the format of a dictionary, is based on interviews, information gleaned from photographs, books and magazines and the author's experiences when she was a cooperante. The "A" entries begin on a fateful note. "Aircraft" is the first word: "At twenty-one minutes past nine on the night of 19 October a Tupolev 134, flying from Mbala in northern Zambia to Maputo … ploughed into a hillside at Mbuzini in South Africa's Transvaal province, killing President Samora Machel of Mozambique and thirty-four on board."

The name Samora comes from a soldier who fought in the 19th-century Portuguese army. It was a moniker Machel inherited from his father who, in turn, was named after his own dad. Machel, it turns out, wasn't the only revolutionary in the family. His grandfather and great- uncle fought under a Tsonga general, Maguiguane Khosa, in the army of the Gaza emperor Ngungunhana in the 1880s and 1890s "when the Portuguese were trying to extend their control inland from their narrow hold on the coastline".

Machel was of Tsonga heritage and his family settled in the lush, fertile land in the south of Mozambique. The late president's father was one of the many Mozambicans "sold", in the words of Machel, to the mines in South Africa. "For every mine worker who came from Mozambique," LeFanu writes, "the South African government paid a proportion of his wages directly to the Portuguese authorities in gold."

Nevertheless, despite the exploitative nature of this arrangement, when Machel's father returned from the mines he had enough money to invest in cattle and land. He also came back a member of the Methodist Church, one of the Protestant churches that would be persecuted under Catholic Portugal's Colonial Act of 1930.

About the centrality of Protestantism to the liberation struggle, Machel himself said: "These old protestants were always persecuted. They took part in the war of resistance against the colonial occupation of our country. When they became protestants, it was a form of resistance. It was they who inspired us, these elders … No book by [Karl] Marx ever arrived here, nor any other book that spoke against colonialism.

Our books were these elders. It was they who taught us what colonialism is, the evils of colonialism and what the colonialists did when they came here. They were our source of inspiration."

When asked when he had first read Marx, Machel's rejoinder was: "I read Marx in the soil of my own land." Machel, to be sure, wasn't an autodidact. His education was painfully attained. Because his family wasn't of the assimilado [assimilated] class, he couldn't proceed beyond a certain grade. On the eve of an important examination, the Catholic Church school he attended had given him an ultimatum: either be baptised, or leave the mission. "It was blackmail. I agreed and I was baptised and christened," he would bitterly reminisce about this "violent form of alienation". LeFanu writes that if Machel's leadership of Frelimo and, later, Mozambique, can be seen as a balancing act of principles and ­pragmatism, this episode was a "pragmatic decision".

Not many people agree that Machel's signing of the Nkomati Accord with South Africa in 1984 was based on principle or, for that matter, of any practical use. At Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, the Rhodesians ceded control of Renamo, an insurgent CIA- and South African-funded rebel group led by Afonso Dhlakama, to South Africa. Renamo specialised in bombing power and rail installations, abducting children and mercilessly killing civilians.

Machel's army controlled the cities, having ceded vast swaths of territory to Renamo. South Africa then offered Machel a deal: they would stop supporting Renamo if Mozambique stopped backing the ANC.

Apart from disappointing the ANC, Julius Nyerere and others, the accord was of no practical value as South Africa continued to supply Dhlakama with cash and arms. Although then-ANC president Oliver Tambo admitted that South Africa had decided to "destroy Mozambique, to kill it as a state," he wasn't sure that "in their position I'd have gone quite so far". Tambo said: "The [Mozambican] leadership was forced to choose between life and death. So if it meant hugging the hyena, they had to do it."

LeFanu laconically observes that Machel's pragmatism had backfired: "He had embraced the hyena and it had savaged him."

LeFanu's dictionary of Machel's life is immensely readable. She has chosen to write it in a clear style lit up by a pseudo-linguistic-lexical approach that is at once humorous and helpful for non-Mozambicans.

As a guide to help one pronounce, for instance, Machel's second name, Moises, LeFanu writes: "The oi is pronounced as one syllable rather than as a diphthong." She lights up her many entries, which can be read separately, with illuminating anecdotes and interviews with central characters in the Mozambican revolutionary drama, including Machel's wife, Graça Machel.

I wish she had included photographs and maps to make the book even more engaging — and an index would have helped.

Curiously, the only Zimbabwean deserving of an entry in LeFanu's dictionary is Tongogara, who died in 1979, on the eve of Zimbabwe's independence. Although Mugabe is mentioned his role is marginalised, yet when Machel was under siege from Renamo it was the Zimbabwean ruler who sent a crack team to try to capture Dhlakama.

So shaky was Machel's government that, according to military historian Paul Moorcraft, Mugabe had received intelligence that it would take the South Africans only 48 hours to dislodge Machel from power.

Mugabe sent thousands of soldiers to Mozambique, although not just for altruistic and revolutionary reasons (he had to secure access to the port at Beira and limit Zimbabwe's reliance on Durban). So big was the Zimbabwean army's presence that in 1985 it numbered about 18 000 soldiers. I hope that the marginalisation of Mugabe isn't another instance of revisionism and Western disillusionment with some of his policies that shows itself by underplaying the good that Mugabe did.

That aside, S for Samora is one of the most engaging works of non-fiction I have read this year. If you are thinking of going to Maputo for a holiday, pack a copy for the trip.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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